Journal Article

<i>Magia Sexualis</i>: Sex, Secrecy, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism

Hugh B. Urban

in Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Published on behalf of American Academy of Religion

Volume 72, issue 3, pages 695-731
Published in print September 2004 | ISSN: 0002-7189
Published online September 2004 | e-ISSN: 1477-4585 | DOI:
Magia Sexualis: Sex, Secrecy, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism

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Although the forces of Eros and Magic have long been linked in western esoteric traditions, it is really not until the nineteenth century that we see the emergence of a large and sophisticated body of literature on the art of sexual magic. This article examines the rise of sexual magic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, placing it in the context of the larger discourse surrounding sexuality in American and British society of the Victorian era. Specifically, I focus on the teachings of the American spiritualist Paschal Beverly Randolph; the infamous “Great Beast 666,” Aleister Crowley; and the founder of the first Tantrik Order in America, Pierre Bernard. Following the lead of Michel Foucault, I argue that this new literature on sexual magic was part of the larger interest in sex that pervaded Victorian culture. Far from being a period of repression and prudery, the Victorian era witnessed an unprecedented explosion of discourse on sex, particularly in its “deviant” and nonproductive forms. The rise of sexual magic at once reflects and yet also subverts many of the sexual values of mainstream Victorian culture. At the same time, however, I argue that Randolph, Crowley, and Bernard were all in their own ways somewhat ahead of their times and foreshadowed much of the obsession with sex and its liberation in contemporary America at the turn of the millennium.

What is peculiar to modern societies is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.

—Michel Foucault (1978: 35)

If this secret [of sexual magic], which is a scientific secret, were perfectly understood, as it is not by me after more than twelve years‘ almost constant study and experiment, there would be nothing which the human imagination can conceive that could not be realized in practice.

—Aleister Crowley (1969: 767)

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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